Alzheimer’s disease

Dr Vernon Coleman and Donna Antoinette Coleman FRSA

At any age, few things are more frightening than the idea of losing your mind. But, for an increasing number of people over 50, this nightmare is becoming a reality.

Alzheimer’s disease was virtually unheard of just a few decades ago. Today, Alzheimer’s disease, the commonest genuine cause of dementia, affects one in ten people.

Scientists have claimed that Alzheimer’s disease is commoner now because people are living longer. This is nonsense. Visit any cemetery and the chances are high that you will find plenty of graves for people who died in their 80s or 90s around 100 years ago. (You will also find plenty of graves for young children – showing just how high the incidence of infant and child mortality used to be and why the average life expectancy was so short.)

The incidence of Alzheimer’s disease has risen because the population has increased. And the incidence of Alzheimer’s will continue to rise steadily as the population increases.

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Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease: gradually robbing the sufferer of his or her memory, judgement, reasoning skills, speech and dignity. The disease also has an effect on the emotions as well as on behaviour. Here are three basic facts:

1. Alzheimer’s, a physical, progressive condition for which there is no known cure, causes degeneration of the nerve cells in the cerebral cortex of the brain as well as loss of brain mass.

2. Alzheimer’s affects both men and women; no sex or nationality is immune to the disease.

3. The incidence of Alzheimer’s steadily increases with age: it occurs in up to 30 per cent of people over the age of 85. However, although this is uncommon, Alzheimer’s disease can affect people as young as 35. When it occurs at an early age, Alzheimer’s is known as early-onset familial Alzheimer’s disease and it tends to progress much more rapidly than late-onset Alzheimer’s. For many years, early-onset Alzheimer’s was known as pre-senile dementia (dementia that is not associated with advanced age). Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease can be an inherited disease.

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Alzheimer’s disease is one of the commonest – and probably the best known – cause of dementia in people over the age of 65.

Dementia (which is a Latin word meaning ‘loss of mind’) is a gradual deterioration in mental function: affecting memory, thinking, judgement, concentration, learning, speech and behaviour.

Some people believe that dementia is a normal part of the ageing process (hence the term ‘senile dementia’), but it is not. There are many people in their 80s and 90s who still have all their mental faculties intact; thousands have gone on to achieve great things in their advanced years. Dementia is neither a natural nor an inevitable consequence of ageing.

Dementia is not itself a disease but is a general word for the symptoms displayed as a result of a number of different diseases. (In much the same way that ‘cancer’ and ‘infection’ aren’t specific diseases.)

When someone displays symptoms of dementia, it’s the doctor’s job to identify the underlying cause.

Besides Alzheimer’s, other disorders that can cause dementia include: Parkinson’s disease, advanced syphilis, vitamin B12 deficiency, Huntington’s disease, Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (aka Mad Cow disease), Down’s Syndrome, Pick’s disease, strokes, Lewy Body disease, late-multiple sclerosis, brain tumours, hormone deficiencies, chronic alcoholism, drug abuse (of both illegal and prescription drugs), head injuries and idiopathic normal pressure hydrocephalus. Some of these disorders are treatable.

Drugs, depression and illness can all mimic the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

It is possible that prescription drugs – not Alzheimer’s – are the commonest cause of dementia. It is likely that half of all cases of alleged dementia could be cured simply by stopping unnecessary prescription drug use. Sedatives, hypnotics, anxiolytics and anti-depressants are the commonest cause of problems, with benzodiazepine tranquillisers and sleeping tablets such as Valium, Mogadon and Ativan probably being some of the commonest culprits.

Copyright Vernon Coleman and Donna Antoinette Coleman 2016

Taken from How to conquer health problems between ages 50 and 120 by Vernon Coleman and Donna Antoinette Coleman (now available as an ebook on Amazon).